A lot of American guys wash up on the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia. The once-daily Continental flight deposits its flotsam on the tarmac and sets these guys loose. They drift to Palikir, the capital of Micronesia. They wander into a classroom and spout mathematics or grammar. They lose their teeth and repair cars. They marry locally and open little stores that sell corned beef. They are part of an undifferentiated mass of mehnwai, foreigners, until they do something outlandish or interesting and then they become “the guy who…”
Sometimes these labels are benign. You know that mehnwai? He’s the guy who joggles (juggling + jogging). Or the guy who cries all the time. Or the guy who dances with old ladies. Sometimes the labels are a bit more extreme: He’s the guy who killed his wife with a two-by-four. Or the guy who locked his student in a closet for an entire weekend until she fell in love with him. Or the guy who molested boys at the Protestant school until he was finally caught because for some reason he put up a website about quantum physics with his own name and the Florida police found him. All of these “guys who” exhibit patterns of behavior that, while sometimes extreme, fall within the usual limits of “guys who” that can be found hiding out anywhere.
That is, until you meet the guy who bit his own finger off.
There is, of course, a comic element to biting your own finger off. And Jim, the guy who bit his finger off, puts up a comic facade about the subject. After you bite your own finger off and then return to kind of sanity, is there much left to do but call it Stubby and go on with your life? This subject could be funny in that shallow, mocking way that every freak show with a YouTube video becomes. That is, until you really think about it. Go ahead, put your finger in your mouth. Make it easy, make it a pinky. Put your teeth at the joint between the distal phalanx and the middle phalanx. Now bite as hard as you can. Did you even make an indentation before the pain became too much to handle?
It takes real commitment to bite your own finger off. According to Jim, “the decision was not difficult to make, but the act was.” The bone didn’t snap off like the bones of a pickled chicken foot. It didn’t crunch or crack like a raw carrot. No, Jim gnawed through the flesh and bone over the course of minutes, the way a dog will really work on a bone until it finally comes apart.
A grenade came through Jim’s bedroom window one night. He could tell by the casing that it was a fragmentation grenade, filled with steel splinters. He saw that his Pohnpeian wife and their two children were still asleep. The grenade’s blast would kill them where they slept. Given the blast radius, perhaps his boys would be maimed, lose limbs, die in horrible agony with their faces blown to dust. There’s no time to warn them or even throw on some clothes. He grabs the grenade and jumps from the window of his small, tin-roofed concrete house down to the mangrove swamp about fifteen feet below. As he falls he gashes open his leg on the rusty re-bar that juts from the cement columns on which his house was built. There is no pain. Not in the gash. Not in the fall. He falls on his back and disappears under the warm, brackish swamp water. For a second all is calm. The swamp has swallowed him. But in the darkness, he thrashes and gets to his feet in the shallow water.
The grenade is forgotten. He has bigger trouble. He is entangled in a tripwire. He can feel the taut, cold wire against his foot. If he moves, a bomb will go off that will surely gut and mangle his entire squad. He can’t stop to wonder why his squad is here, in the mangrove swamp on Pohnpei and not in Kuwait City. He doesn’t know why the bomb is here — it’s enough to know that they will die unless he saves them. There is only one way out, only one way to save his friends and escape the tripwire: he has to bite off his finger. It’s a hard thing to do, but lives are on the line. One bite and he begins to scream. But he has to keep going, has to get through the bone before time runs out. There are bright, searching lights that momentarily blind him as he gnaws on the finger. Helicopters? He is wet and covered in blood and mud. He’s screaming, but not in pain. He’s screaming just to scream as the finger begins to give and he separates bone from bone.
The lights are the flashlights of the municipal police. Most nights in this quiet, rural area of jungle farmers and fishermen, the police hang out in their pickup truck, drink sakau or cheap rum, and maybe visit one of their girlfriends. On this night, they are called on to subdue a naked, trained Marine whose mental state has left him incapable of feeling pain. So they watch him. They yell at him to get out of the swamp.
“You want to see how fucking tough a Marine is?” Jim yells. “I’ll bite off the rest of these fucking fingers!”
The police decide they better go after him. It takes six of them to subdue Jim. The police are scratched, bruised, wet, and blood–spattered, but they finally get him cuffed and dumped into the back of the pickup, like some enormous, writhing catch that got dredged up from the depths of the ocean. They haul their load to the jail, a small, crumbling building that keeps its prisoners locked in more by mutual agreement than iron bars. A chunk of Jim’s finger sinks into the silty mud of the swamp, food for crabs and eels.
The next night I drink rum and chocolate milk in Styrofoam cups with one of the policemen. We sit on plastic fish coolers near his shack that, like Jim’s, is built over the mangrove swamp. The policeman wants to see me. He wants to know why Jim would go crazy like that. I must know the reason. I’m the only other American who lives in the area — “the guy who dances with old ladies.”
In English we have labels like PTSD, bi-polar disorder, and schizophrenia that effectively distance the rest of us, the normals, from the “diseased.” We think that some cause, like Jim’s job doing forward recon in Gulf War I picking up the bodies left behind by Saddam’s retreat, can have some effect years later, like hallucinating a grenade and bomb attack and biting off his finger. But it’s hard to convey these ideas to someone who is not steeped in our cultural psychology; try to explain this along with our belief in “brain chemicals” that can be “out of balance” and it begins to sound every bit as plausible as the explanation that the policeman settles on: bad magic.
A local witch tells Jim’s Pohnpeian family exactly who it is that has been playing magic on him and making him crazy, and Jim, with about half his wits back, tries to keep them from retaliating. The witch speaks delicate incantations to stones and wraps these stones in leaves. What she tells the stones I don’t know. Then she hides them near Jim’s house to ward off the bad magic. A Catholic priest comes and throws holy water on the house. They are protected. The bad magic won’t come and settle into Jim’s brain any more.
If only maintaining sanity were as easy as a splash of water, an incantation, a pill, or a nice long talk. Jim didn’t get better; he just became dormant. Now he says that “every thought, decision, comment, or action is always questioned in my own mind, then looked at a second time by what I call my ‘sanity microscope.’ ” He has become, even to himself, “the guy who bit his own finger off.” He is his own foreigner. Even as he rebuilds his mind, the “guy who” is still there, will always be there, thrashing in the swamp, struggling to surface.